I Learned My Prayers in Basque

When I was growing up, my nightly ritual was probably just like that of other kids in my C.C.D. class. After tucking me in, my mother would sit beside me on the bed and listen to me recite my prayers: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Creed. But this litany was also very different. For first of all, I would say these prayers in Basque.

My mother and father are Basque immigrants from Spain. They grew up in a country ruled by the dictator Francisco Franco, who fancied himself the guardian of a unified, Catholic Spain. His rule exacted a heavy toll on the Basques, who were themselves devoutly Catholic but whoas my mother had taught me to doprayed to God in Basque. Franco forbade the use of regional languages like Basque, even in private conversations. Those who tried to communicate publicly in Basque were often admonished to speak in Christian. Schoolchildren played a game: whenever they spoke Basque, they were given a small object to hold, to be passed on to the next child who spoke Basque. The one holding the object at the end of the day was punished. Other expressions of Basque culture were also proscribed. My grandfather sold his accordion when he was told its music incited its listeners to sin.


And yet the Basques survived Franco’s regime with their language intact, though considerably weakened. About one-third of the population spoke Basque when Franco seized power in 1939; only one-fifth did so when he died in 1975. Even so, the language would have been in a sorrier state still were it not for the efforts to revitalize it. Women have been particularly important to this enterprise. They organized the first Basque classes in the 1930’s and taught the first clandestine classes during Franco’s regime. These classes were the precursors of the educational system today, in which students can receive free instruction inor throughthe Basque language if they choose.

The local Basque clergy has been crucial to making that choice a reality. While Franco expressly forbade the use of Basque, priests tended to families like mine in their own language. School itself might have been conducted in Spanish, but the Doktrina was taught in Basque. Priests would say the Mass in Latin, then turn around to deliver the homily in Basque. Every week, my mother and father recall, they listened to the radio broadcasts put on by the Franciscans of Aranzazu, encouraging them to keep not only the faith, but their language as well.

The Jesuits have also played an important role in the spiritual and cultural life of the Basques. Perhaps this is not surprising, since their founder, Iñigo Loiola, was himself Basque. Jesuits have served on the Basque Language Academy that has standardized the Basque language, making possible its widespread use in education. They have also been tireless in their efforts to write down legends, songs, poetry and other forms of oral literature, copiously produced by Basques in various dialects. Without these recordings, these works would have been lost, because the people who produced them were themselves illiterate.

But Jesuits have also been important to Basques as protagonists of the movement to fashion the language for the modern world by publishing Basque magazines, journals and books and by broadcasting Basque television and radio shows. Among these Jesuits is Txema (pronounced chema) Auzmendi, who was among the founders of an all-Basque newspaper, Egunkaria, in 1990. For the first time in their history, Basques were able to read the news in Basquenews of every kind, from television schedules and comics to sports and politics (from radical to reactionary). But its scope reached beyond the regional. Its front page covering the attacks of 9/11 was among those chosen by the National Press Club for its commemorative poster, Darkest Page in American History.

So it was with great surprise when on Feb. 20 of this year Egunkaria did not appear on newsstands. In the middle of the night, 10 of its staffincluding Txemawere arrested by the Spanish Civil Guard for supposed complicity with the armed militant group, E.T.A. (Basque Homeland and Freedom). While offering no concrete evidence for this allegation, the Spanish government held all 10 incommunicado for five days. Many of those who were releasedwithout being charged and after paying exorbitant bailsalleged being tortured while in custody. Txema himself was released after three weeks. He had not been physically tortured himself, though he could hear the screams of others.

Basquesand undoubtedly Spaniards, toohave tried to make their outrage at these events heard. But they have been drowned out in the din of bigger news. Two days after Egunkaria’s closing, tens of thousands of people marched peacefully to protest these violations of civil liberties. Except for Aznar’s own Partido Popular, all Basque political parties have condemned the closing. Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists are among those who have called for an investigation into the matter. The Society of Jesus has expressed particular concern about the arrest of Txema, given his longstanding and public opposition to violence and his advocacy for the poor and marginalized.

Sadness still creeps into my mother’s voice when she recalls the days when merely speaking her language was equated with sedition. It is heartbreaking if those days have returned. It is unfair to the great majority of those who, both in the Basque country and diasporas like mine, are both pro-Basque and antiviolence. It also does a great injustice to the history of many religious ordersFranciscans, Capuchins, Jesuitsthat have worked ceaselessly and peacefully to promote both the faith and the language of the Basque people.

It is in part because of efforts like theirs that a little American girl like me could learn her prayers in Basque.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Some background to the kerfuffle over Pope Francis and kissing the papal ring.
Eric Sundrup, S.J.March 26, 2019
Israel’s upcoming election, which takes place on April 9, is casting uncertainty over House of Grace’s future.
Eloise BlondiauMarch 26, 2019
The freshness and wonder, the way that what was there before still exists but is now shot through with newness. The city glitters. Why not? Lent is the season of baptismal preparation as much as penance.
We have experienced God’s benevolent interventions in our own lives.